Natalie Brown - 2014 Program Participant

Cerro de la Cruz, Antigua, Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz: Touristy photo of Antigua - The volcano, Volcan de Agua, Natalie had to climb up as part of her placement is in the background. Some days you wouldn't be able to see it because it would be covered in clouds. Out of view of the photo are two other volcanoes, Volcan de Fuego and Volcan Acatenango. Every once and a while, Volcan de Fuego would erupt and a plume of smoke would be visible from the city.

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad? Why Guatemala?

I had wanted to travel abroad since I was very young. My experience in an immersion elementary school catalyzed my desire to visit Central or South America. I chose Guatemala partially because it is a Spanish-speaking country, and partially because I am passionate about environmental advocacy (and coffee!). The program in Guatemala allowed me to speak Spanish with local people and work on an issue I care about.

What made you select IVHQ over other volunteer organizations?

I chose IVHQ because it was significantly less expensive than other programs I had researched. IVHQ also allows volunteers to start their program any Monday, so it doesn't have a rigid schedule.

What was your living arrangement like in Guatemala?

Volunteers through IVHQ live in a volunteer house with dorm-like rooms. My sister and I traveled together and shared a room with another girl from Portland, Oregon. We lived with people from around the world, from Canada to Australia. It was nice to live with people doing similar volunteer programs.

Describe a typical day volunteering.

My day started at 7 a.m. After eating breakfast, I'd walk ~1 mile to the bus station where there were seemingly hundreds of brightly painted old school buses that Guatemalans use for public transport. I'd get on the bus toward Ciudad Vieja, ride for 20 minutes, and jump off (quite literally, the bus would still be moving most of the time) at San Miguel Escobar. I'd meet the farmer and other volunteers at De La Gente's office, and our task would be different each day. We might go to Lesbia's house to sort beans or roast coffee, or we might go with Filiberto or Froilan to walk an hour up the side of Volcan de Agua to weed and tend to the coffee trees. We'd be done around noon, and head back to Antigua on the bus.

Volunteer in Guatemala with a local farmer

Natalie and Froilan after five hours of hard sweaty work. 

What was the most memorable experience you had while volunteering abroad in Guatemala?

My most memorable experiences were definitely my interaction with the farmers. It was shocking to me that most volunteers couldn't speak any Spanish at all, so the farmers would be so excited that I could speak with them.

I particularly remember my conversations with Froilan. My last day volunteering, I was the only volunteer for De La Gente, so Froilan and I were working together alone. He asked me what I studied in college, and I told him I did climate change adaptation research. When he asked me if I believed climate change was caused by humans, I wasn’t sure what to say as talking about climate change can be a touchy subject. I said, “the climate changes in cycles, but humans are altering it at a rate we haven’t seen before,” to play it safe, and he responded with, “in Guatemala, we know people are causing climate change because it is happening before our eyes.” That was amazing to me. It isn’t politicized there like it is in the U.S. because the impacts are real and are affecting everyday life. We were there during the rainy season, but all of the farmers I talked to said that it wasn’t raining nearly enough and that they had never worked in such heat.

Froilan and I also talked about poverty in the U.S. and Guatemala, and how different our economies and politics are, yet how they’re also strikingly similar. He was shocked to learn that there is poverty in the U.S.! Needless to say, I was pretty bummed when noon rolled around, because we could have talked about so many things.

Chicken buses in Guatemala

The chicken buses are old U.S. school buses painted in bright colors that Guatemalans use as public transport

How did the local IVHQ staff support you throughout your program?

IVHQ staff helped through Maximo Nivel. Maximo Nivel helped us the first day of volunteering by showing us how to ride the bus and get to our placement. After that, we were on our own! They were there to house us, to help acclimate us on the first day, and to help if we had any issues but otherwise we were fairly free, which was actually nice.

What was the biggest challenge you faced abroad?

The biggest challenge I faced was being ill for a couple days. As I was hiking up the side of Volcan de Agua with other volunteers, I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. I tried continuing because I didn’t want to look like a lazy American, but black splotches kept blocking my vision. I told Froilan that I needed to rest, and that was fine. Unfortunately, I sat in a pile of biting ants and ended up making the situation way more embarrassing. After stopping for a few minutes, I thought I might be fine and attempted hiking again, but could only go a few meters before almost passing out again. I said it would be perfectly okay if I sat in the shade while the others continued up the mountain and I would see them on their way down, but Froilan didn't want to leave me alone. While I insisted it would be fine, Froilan decided I should ride his horse, Estrella, up the mountain so I wouldn't be left alone. So, that was my first time riding bareback!

I tried working for a few minutes, but decided it would be best to not faint and spent most of the morning hanging out with and feeding Estrella. The second I got back to the volunteer house that afternoon, I went right to my bed and fell asleep, super dehydrated. Our “housekeeper” Maria came into the room asking me why I didn't eat lunch (she’d be upset if people didn't let her know they weren't eating because she didn't want to waste food) and saw that I wasn't feeling well. She immediately acted like a mom and grabbed a cold washcloth and put it on my forehead and got me water. I am so grateful for how understanding she was! She definitely liked me and my sister because we spoke Spanish to her. I rested most of the afternoon and felt much better the next day. It was so extremely embarrassing, but the people in Guatemala were so helpful and understanding.

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

Natalie and her sister, Amy, took a day trip to Lago de Atitlan. If you are ever in Guatemala, this is a must. Natalie and Amy did a boat tour and got to visit four different cities on the lake!

What advice would you give to others who are interested in volunteering with IVHQ in Guatemala?

The most important thing to remember about volunteering abroad is that you’re there to help the people and to work. If you want to tour the country and take a vacation that’s fine, but don’t sign up for a volunteer program and then not show up. There were many people in our program that would be too hungover from the night before and would just not go to their placement. The workers are counting on you and might be sacrificing their time so that you can have an experience, and it’s important to understand that. Also, if you’re planning on working, it’s important to at least know a little of the language or to make an effort to speak. You won’t get anything done if your placement has to mime your tasks to you, and you’ll get more out of the experience if you can talk with the people you’re working with.

What are the top reasons you'd want to volunteer abroad again? Where would you most like to go?

Volunteering abroad was a great way to interact with locals while also doing work I am passionate about. I would absolutely volunteer abroad again, but would like to go to South America, possibly Peru or Chile. I've considered WOOFing as that fits well with what I like to do and with my professional background.

Would you recommend IVHQ’s program in Guatemala to others?

If it’s their first time volunteering or first time in the country, yes I would recommend IVHQ and my program to others. If I were to go back to Guatemala again, I would go directly through De La Gente and do a homestay with one of the farmers.

If you could change one thing about your program, what would it be?

If I could change one thing, I would have liked to have been able to select living situations before getting to Guatemala. It was nice to live with other volunteers at the beginning of my time there, but I would have really liked to stay at a homestay!

What is the biggest lesson you learned volunteering abroad?

​My volunteering experience was so incredible! I know I absolutely want to go again, and ​it really opened my eyes to how similar people are, regardless of where we come from or what our background is.